UPDATE, Tuesday August 13: Overnight, radicals in Sinai launched a rocket at Eilat — Israel’s southern port city, a popular resort for foreign tourists. It was destroyed above Eilat, apparently by Israel’s “Iron Dome” missile interceptor system. Air raid sirens sounded. (Click here for Reuters report.)
by Yossi Melman (in Tel Aviv)
[A similar article by Melman, co-author of Every Spy a Prince and the new Spies Against Armageddon appears on the website of the new 24-hour video news channel broadcast from Israel in English, French, and Arabic at i24news.com . Click here to see the blog post.]
The press office of the Egyptian Army denied (Friday night) media reports that Israel attacked an al-Qaeda position in the northern Sinai – the territory occupied by Israel from 1967 to 1979, which has become a free-roaming zone for terrorists since President Hosni Mubarak’s fall in 2011.
The spokesman in Cairo also denied suggestions that such an attack was a result of secret Israeli-Egyptian military and intelligence coordination.
Yet the circumstances of what appeared to be a military strike – which killed five or six Sinai-based al-Qaeda men – remain mysterious. They were killed near Rafah, a city that is split between Egypt and Hamas-controlled Gaza.
The first report Friday was by a Bethlehem-based Palestinian news agency which is known for its close links with the Palestinian Authority (which is Hamas’s bitter rival).
The news agency claimed that an Israeli drone fired a missile at a depot of the local al-Qaeda group in Sinai, where Grad rockets were stored. The report was picked up by the AP news agency and later by most of the Israeli media outlets.
Israeli experts commented that if such a strike was executed it must have been coordinated with the Egyptian authorities. They explained that Israel would not jeopardize its fragile peace treaty with Egypt, at this sensitive time when Egypt is in the middle of a domestic political crisis.
The Israel Defense Forces and the Ministry of Defense in Tel Aviv refused to comment on the story, thus leaving the incident in a “zone of deniability” for both sides.
It is possible, however, that the attack was conducted by the Egyptian armed forces, which are certainly conducting a massive military campaign in Sinai to uproot al-Qaeda cells: mostly local Beduin Arabs, supplemented by volunteers from Yemen and Somalia, as well as radical Palestinian Islamists from Gaza.
So far nearly 100 terrorists and 20 Egyptian soldiers died in fierce battles in the Sinai: both in the central mountains and on the northern coast. Israel agreed to raise no objection, as Egypt sent in reinforcements with armored vehicles and used helicopter gunships – actions which would violate the Israel-Egypt peace treaty of 1979.
Suddenly on Thursday, the IDF ordered that the civilian airport in Eilat – a popular Red Sea resort for European and Russian tourists – be shut down. Flights were diverted for a few hours, and rumors abounded that intelligence suggested Sinai-based terrorists would try to shoot down airliners over southern Israel.
A source in the IDF, who asked not to be identified, confirmed that there was indeed a threat to the airport and to civilian aircraft. Authorities had recently announced that anti-missile missiles were installed near Eilat. Some rockets fired from Sinai had exploded near the Israeli resort and port.
First it was suggested that the alert was based on communications intercepted by America’s NSA; but other sources indicated later that the intelligence tip came from Egyptian authorities.
So who was behind the latest strike in Rafah, and what kind of rockets were stored there by the local al-Qaeda offshoot? The mystery remains.
Yet eyewitnesses reported that the depot was hit from the air by a missile launched from a distance – a skill suggesting that Israel was responsible. Ironically, sources said the rockets that were destroyed had an impressive range (for a terrorist group) of nearly 50 miles.
If Israel carried out the strike, this would be the first time since the 1979 peace treaty that Israel’s military operated on Egyptian soil.
In recent years — according to foreign (non-Israeli) sources and reports — the Israeli Air Force and the Navy have been very active in long-range missions in the Red Sea area, targeting boats at sea and truck convoys in Sudan which tried to smuggle weapons from Iran to Hamas in Gaza. The reports also indicate the IAF has been very active, also destroying Syria’s nuclear reactor in 2007 (though still without any official Israeli announcement or confirmation), and hitting convoys and depots in Syria – at least four times in the past 8 months, as weapons were being moved to Lebanon’s Hezbollah during Syria’s civil war.
Once again the Israeli government neither confirmed nor denied the reports, but Defense Minister Moshe (Boogie) Ya’alon and his predecessor Ehud Barak dropped hints which left the impression that Israel was responsible for these hits in Syria.
In the Israeli military parlance, such clandestine operations by the IDF are defined as CBW –- campaigns between wars.